Now that the preseason is underway for FC Dallas, it is time to take a look at the top storylines to lookout for in 2015.
1. Youth improvement
FC Dallas has signed a league record 13 homegrown players. During the 2014 season, FCD homegrown players combined for 4,607 regular-season minutes, tops in the league by more than 16 percent. Midfielder Victor Ulloa became the first Homegrown player in club history to play more than 2,000 minutes in a single season.
FC Dallas fielded the youngest squad among the 10 playoff teams, and its players -- six starters 24 or young -- were on average four years younger than the Sounders they faced in the conference semis.
More than likely this team will get even younger this season with the way the trades and transfers seem to be aligning. That means guys like Ulloa, Kellyn Acosta, Moises Hernandez and even those guy like Mauro Diaz, Fabian Castillo and Tesho Akindele need to continue developing and improving for this team to be successful in 2015.
2. Staying healthy
We've talked about this a lot in the past but it is worth mentioning yet again with the dawn of a new season. MLS seasons are marathons, not sprints, so having a team remain relatively healthy for the long haul typically yields big success. Look at LA and Seattle last year, both had some injuries but none that kept them from gunning for the top of the table all year long. The year before that with Sporting KC, they had only a couple knocks and when someone did go down, someone else stepped up in their place.
FCD hasn't had that luxury as much in recent years, though the summer last season proved that this team could get results without their best players.
The point here is, if this club remains healthy for the entire season and only loses key guys for a game or two at most, then you can should expect this team to finish very well at the end of the year.
3. Becoming more disciplined
10. That is the number FCD fans got annoyed with in the middle of the 2014 season. It was the total number of red cards picked up by players. Being young also means learning to be more discipline. Part of this is how Pareja coaches his team too. He brings a lot of energy to the training pitch, which his players pick up on. Part of it is also due to how young the team was last year (and likely this year).
4. Who will step up in 2015?
Last year we saw a guy like Ulloa really step up when the club need him to. So who will do so this year? That is the big question. Will it be a rookie like Otis Earle? Or will it be someone completely new to the team like Kyle Bekker or a transfer that has yet to land?
5. Will the no big-named DP approach work?
After the brief flirting with Michael Essien, it appears that FC Dallas is going to go at things in the Designated Player department with the way they have been all along. Get a reasonably priced South American and hope he over performs. More teams are spending big on DPs than in years past, which makes me wonder even more if the less-is-more approach to this part of the roster is right or wrong.
6. Who gets the nod in goal?
For the last couple of years there has been a race in goal. Chris Seitz has been apart of it all when Raul Fernandez was here but now with Dan Kennedy in Frisco over Fernandez, the question has to be asked yet again. Do you give it to the MLS veteran that was arguably the best keeper in the league despite playing on the worst club for the last few years? Or do you give it to the guy that has put in a lot of time with this club over the last few years? Tough call but I know Pareja will come away from preseason with an idea of who fits this team better.
7. What will the defense look like?
From the sounds of things this offseason, Pareja seems intent on keeping the center back duo of Matt Hedges and Zach Loyd in tact for this season. Adding in the Earle pick in the draft gives Hernandez the competition he will need to grow and then there is the right back situation. I call it a situation because Je-Vaughn Watson hasn't officially re-signed with the club, Acosta is currently hurt from his time with the U-20s (knee injury, no word on how long he'll actually be out), and then there is talk that newly acquired Atiba Harris could be groomed to be a right back under Pareja.
One thing is certain right now is that if Hedges and Loyd are the pair in the middle, then those behind them (Stephen Keel and Walker Zimmerman) need to be good to go in the rotation to keep everyone fresh. I'm more concerned right now about the full back situation with this group. If Watson signs, Acosta's knee holds up and doesn't take him out of action for a long period of time then my concerns will certainly shift forward on the field. At the end of the day I still firmly believe you win titles in MLS with good defenses and this group could be good enough to do it if the questions get answered.
8. Does Pareja stick to a 4-4-2, or go back to the 4-2-3-1? Or move to a 4-3-3?
We know how things went last year when the club shifted to a 4-4-2. The summer was a good run because of that shift by Pareja.
But working in a healthy Diaz to the lineup means that some questions have to be asked about what shape he will go with this season. As much as I would rather see Pareja find a way for the 4-4-2 to work with this club, I do think that a move back to the 4-2-3-1 or even a 4-3-3 seems the most plausible. I also wouldn't be shocked to see more of the 3-5-2 this season.
This question will certainly be answered early on in the preseason if I know Pareja.
9. Who lines up on the other wing from Fabian Castillo?
In some ways this may be the biggest hole on the roster right now. Ever since Andres Escobar's option was not picked up it meant that the club had a big hole to fill on the wings. Is that a DP-sized hole or just a quality midfielder that they are scouting in South America right now. (You can almost be certain that they'll bring in a South American player or two this year, it is just a matter of when.)
My hope is that this question gets answered sooner rather than later though. I want whatever player they are expecting to be in this role to be in camp early as possible. Then again this could fall under #4 and someone like Brian Span or Ryan Hollingshead could be suited for this role. We'll see.
10. Can Ulloa do it again?
We've talked so much about what Ulloa did this last season here in the offseason. Not many people knew what to expect of him when it happened too. Now clubs know what they are getting when they see him lineup on the field, which means he will have to find a way to raise his game yet again. And maybe this is where Kyle Bekker comes into play for the club as well. He can be someone that will push Ulloa in training.